Battle of the Yellow Ford

Last updated

Battle of the Yellow Ford
Part of the Nine Years' War
B Yellow Ford from hill 1.jpg
View along the Yellow Ford battlefield looking north-west
Date14 August 1598
between Armagh and Blackwatertown, Ireland

54°24′04″N6°41′10″W / 54.401°N 6.686°W / 54.401; -6.686 Coordinates: 54°24′04″N6°41′10″W / 54.401°N 6.686°W / 54.401; -6.686
Result Irish victory
O'Neill Clan.png Irish alliance

Flag of England.svg Kingdom of England

Commanders and leaders
Hugh O'Neill
Hugh Roe O'Donnell [ citation needed ]
Hugh Maguire [ citation needed ]
Henry Bagenal  
Calisthenes Brooke
Thomas Maria Wingfield
Maelmora O'Reilly 
~5,000 ~4,000
Casualties and losses
~low ~1,500 killed
~300 deserted

The Battle of the Yellow Ford was fought in County Armagh on 14 August 1598, during the Nine Years' War in Ireland. An English army of about 4,000, led by Henry Bagenal, was sent from the Pale to relieve the besieged Blackwater Fort. Marching from Armagh to the Blackwater, the column was routed by a Gaelic Irish army under Hugh O'Neill of Tyrone. O'Neill's forces divided the English column and a large earthwork stalled its advance. Bagenal was killed by an Irish musketeer, and scores of his men were killed and wounded when the English gunpowder wagon exploded. About 1,500 of the English army were killed and 300 deserted. After the battle, the Blackwater Fort surrendered to O'Neill. The battle marked an escalation in the war, as the English Crown greatly bolstered its military forces in Ireland, and many Irish lords who had been neutral joined O'Neill's alliance.



In 1597, the English Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Burgh, built a new fort on the river Blackwater five miles northwest of the English government's garrison town Armagh. Soon after it was built, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, laid siege to it. In 1598, with the besieged garrison running low on supplies, the English government debated whether to abandon the fort, as it was too far into O'Neill's home territory to be sustainable. It was six and a half miles from the O'Neill stronghold of Dungannon. Sir Henry Bagenal argued the fort should be re-supplied, and in early August 1598 was appointed to lead the expedition.

According to the Annals of the Four Masters : "When O'Neill had received intelligence that this great army was approaching him, he sent his messengers to O'Donnell, requesting of him to come to his assistance against this overwhelming force of foreigners who were coming to his country. O'Donnell proceeded immediately, with all his warriors, both infantry and cavalry, and a strong body of forces from Connacht, to assist his ally against those who were marching upon him. The Irish of all the province of Ulster also joined the same army, so that they were all prepared to meet the English before they arrived at Armagh".[ citation needed ]

Bagenal's army marched from Dublin to Armagh. Meanwhile, O'Neill's troops had dug trenches in the countryside between Armagh and the Blackwater fort, blocked the roads with felled trees, and set up brushwood breastworks. The countryside was hilly with drumlins and was made up of woodland, bog and some fields. In Armagh, Bagenal was aware that the five miles to the besieged fort was laced with ambush positions, but believed his army could handle the hit-and-run tactics and that he would win any pitched battle. With the main road blocked, Bagenal chose to march along a series of low hills and cross the River Callan.[ citation needed ]

Opposing forces

Bagenal was the English army commander in chief (marshal) of Ulster for a decade (beginning in 1587 as his father's deputy), gaining extensive experience fighting against the Maguires and other Irish lords. He had a bitter grudge against O'Neill, who some years earlier had eloped with his sister Mabel. He was familiar with the territory. He commanded 3,500 [1] footsoldiers, more than half of whom were Irishmen[ citation needed ] but also included a contingent of footsoldiers recently arrived in Dublin from England, and also a core group of footsoldiers from England that had experience fighting in Ireland. Bagenal's footsoldiers were armed with the standard weapons of the day: pikes and muskets. Standard formation when marching through hostile territory was musketeers in outside columns, able to fire out, and pikemen on the inside able to relieve the musketeers in the event of a sustained charge against the column. Bagenal also had 350 cavalry and several pieces of artillery. The cavalry were commanded by Sir Calithenese Brooke. A troop of cavalry was commanded by Maelmora O'Reilly, who was deemed to be lord of East Breifne by Queen Elizabeth I. This was not recognised within the East Breifne and Maelmora had no authority there as it had risen up in rebellion. Maelmora was the eldest son of Sir John O'Reilly, Lord of East Breifne, who had died fighting against the English in 1596. Maelmora was slain in the battle of the Yellow Ford. [2]

The strength of O'Neill's army is estimated to have been 5,000.[ citation needed ] O'Neill's army was unlike earlier Irish armies, as possibly 80 percent of his men were armed with calivers, which was a lighter and more portable version of the musket. These were supported by pikemen, and targeteers[ clarification needed ] gave close protection to Tyrone's skirmishers. O'Neill had several English and Spanish military advisors in his pay, as well as many Irish officers with experience in mainland Europe, who trained his troops in the use of modern weaponry. However, his army was not the same as the pike and shot deployed by the English. O'Neill developed a hybrid army which maximised his infantry's firepower while maintaining the key Irish advantage of mobility. [3] The earl had less success modernising his cavalry, who carried their spears over-arm, either thrusting or throwing them at close quarters in the traditional way.[ citation needed ]

The battle

Last vestiges of the scrub woodland which flanked the Yellow Ford battlefield Scrub bushes on the Yellow Ford battlefield.jpg
Last vestiges of the scrub woodland which flanked the Yellow Ford battlefield

The English Crown army was made up of six regiments—two forward, two centre, and two rear, and with cavalry at centre. As soon as it left Armagh, it was harried with gunfire from Irish troops hidden in scrubland on both flanks of the column. While fire poured in from the sides, no resistance was met at the head of the column as it crossed the River Callan. As the lead regiment pressed on, led by Sir Richard Percy, dangerous gaps began to separate the English infantry. It was later remarked that the leading English troops marched as if they had "won the goal in a match at football". [4] As Percy pushed further he crossed a boggy ford, the 'Yellow Ford' from which the battle takes its name. It was an area of raised ground allowing access across the bog to the hills ahead. Bagenal's following regiment lagged behind, burdened with supplies and artillery, one of which was a saker (a cannon weighing 2,500–3,000 pounds) drawn by oxen. It was getting bogged down "every ten score end" [5] and eventually got stuck and was abandoned.

Percy's regiment climbed a second hill (Drumcullen), where he found a mile-long earthen trench and bank cutting across their line of advance. The trench was five-foot deep, the bank five-foot high and crested with thorns. Harried by gunfire from his flanks, Percy took his regiment down the hill and over the blockade, led by the forlorn hope under Captains Turner and Leigh. The trench was not defended and O'Neill made no effort to stop them. Reaching the top of the third hill (Mullyleggan), Percy could see the Blackwater Fort. The beleaguered garrison could see their relief and threw their caps in the air "hoping to have a better supper than the dinner they had that day". [6] But their hopes were stillborn.

The rear English regiments under Captains Cuney and Billing had been halted crossing the River Callan and the rest of the English army had stalled on Drumcullen hill. O'Neill sent more troops to attack Percy's men, forcing the English musketeers to withdraw into their pike stand. This allowed O'Neill's shot to rake the compact body of troops with close-range gunfire, and his horse and swordsmen started to open gaps in the pike defence. Under severe pressure, Bagenal ordered Percy to retreat back over the trench, but this could not be done in an orderly way and the lead English regiment was routed. The trench had cut off Percy's men from their cavalry. Moreover, it hindered the English infantry's retreat as "falling over one another they filled the dyke and were trodden down where they fell". [7] Marshal Bagenal led his men forward to help the shattered infantry, but as he descended the hill towards the trench he was shot through the head and killed. The English counter-attack continued but it was badly mauled by O'Neill, sending them spilling back over the trench.

Thomas Maria Wingfield took over command of the English army. Matters went from bad to worse, as an English soldier attempted to refill his supply of gunpowder straight from the powder store in the supply train. Thrusting his hand into the powder, he still had his lit match from his firearm. Two to four hundred pounds of gunpowder exploded in the English central position, killing and wounding scores and shrouding the hill in a thick cloud of smoke. [8] This disaster within the English ranks only encouraged the Irish to redouble their attacks. With little option, Wingfield ordered a retreat to Armagh. But the commander of the English rear either didn't get the command or refused to obey it, or was unable to make an orderly retreat and instead launched a foolhardy second counterattack across the trench. O'Neill quickly crushed Cosby's attack. Only quick action by Wingfield and the English horse saved 500 men from the slaughter, but Cosby was taken prisoner by O'Neill's men.[ citation needed ]

The rest of the English Crown forces struggled back to Armagh. The Irish moved to cut off the English retreat at the River Callan, but point-blank fire from the English column's remaining cannon halted the Irish advance. Finally, the shattered English force caught a break, as Irish fire slackened. The Irish shot had exhausted their immediate supply of gunpowder. Captain Cuney later noted that if O'Neill's pike had come on as his shot none of his men would have survived. [9] After recrossing the River Callan, the English army returned to Armagh.


About 1,500 of the English Crown forces were killed. [10] This included 18 "captains" or officers killed. Three hundred soldiers deserted to the Irish alliance, including two Englishmen. Out of 4,000 soldiers who had set out from Armagh, just over 2,000 returned after the battle. Those who did reach Armagh were besieged. The English cavalry broke out and rode south, escaping the Irish. After three days of negotiation, it was agreed that the English Crown troops could leave Armagh as long as they left their arms and ammunition behind and that the garrison of the Blackwater Fort surrendered. The most badly wounded English soldiers were left in Armagh Cathedral, many with severe burns suffered in the gunpowder explosion, but O'Neill agreed to tend to them and have them transported to Newry when they were fit to travel. [11]

According to the English, 200 to 300 of O'Neill's army were killed, though that is likely to be an overestimate to mitigate the scale of the disaster. [12]

After the battle, the English Crown swiftly and greatly bolstered its military forces in Ireland. Many Irish lords who had been neutral undertook to join O'Neill's alliance. Thus, the overall outcome of the battle was an escalation of the war.

Related Research Articles

Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy English statesman

Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire, KG was an English nobleman and soldier who served as Lord Deputy of Ireland under Queen Elizabeth I, then as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under King James I.

Hugh ONeill, Earl of Tyrone Irish earl

Hugh O'Neill, was an Irish Gaelic lord, Earl of Tyrone and was later created The Ó Néill Mór, Chief of the Name. O'Neill's career was played out against the background of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, and he is best known for leading the resistance during the Nine Years' War, the strongest threat to Tudor authority in Ireland since the revolt of Silken Thomas.

Siege of Kinsale Battle in Englands conquest of Gaelic Ireland

The Siege or Battle of Kinsale was the ultimate battle in England's conquest of Gaelic Ireland, commencing in October 1601, near the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and at the climax of the Nine Years' War—a campaign by Hugh O'Neill, Hugh Roe O'Donnell and other Irish lords against English rule.

Nine Years War (Ireland) War that took place in Ireland from 1593 to 1603

The Nine Years' War, sometimes called Tyrone's Rebellion, took place in Ireland from 1593 to 1603. It was fought between an Irish alliance—led mainly by Hugh O'Neill of Tyrone and Hugh Roe O'Donnell of Tyrconnell—against English rule in Ireland, and was a response to the then-ongoing Tudor conquest of Ireland. The war was fought in all parts of the country, but mainly in the northern province of Ulster. The Irish alliance won some important early victories, such as the Battle of Clontibret (1595) and the Battle of the Yellow Ford (1598), but the English won a decisive victory against the alliance and their Spanish allies in the Siege of Kinsale (1601–02). The war ended with the Treaty of Mellifont (1603). Many of the defeated northern lords left Ireland to seek support for a new uprising in the Flight of the Earls (1607), never to return. This marked the end of Gaelic Ireland and led to the Plantation of Ulster.

Aodh Mag Uidhir, anglicised as Hugh Maguire was the Lord of Fermanagh in Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I and leader of the ancient Maguire clan; he died fighting crown authority during the Nine Years War.

The Battle of Clontibret was fought in County Monaghan in May 1595, during the Nine Years' War in Ireland. A column of 1,750 English troops led by Henry Bagenal was ambushed near Clontibret by a larger Gaelic Irish army led by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. The English column had been sent to relieve the besieged English garrison at Monaghan Castle. The English suffered very heavy losses, but a suicidal cavalry charge apparently saved it from destruction. The Irish victory shocked the English and was their first severe setback during the war.

The Battle of Moyry Pass was fought during September and October 1600 in counties Armagh and Louth, in the north of Ireland, during the Nine Years' War. It was the first significant engagement of forces following the cessation of arms agreed in the previous year between the Irish leader Hugh O'Neill and the English Crown commander, the Earl of Essex.

Ó hAnluain Family name

The Ó h-Anluain family was an agnatic extended family comprising one of a string of dynasts along the Ulster-Leinster border. Depending on the advantage to the sept, the named leader—The O'Hanlon—supported either the Earl of Tyrone or authorities within the English Pale. During the 15th century, ties were close with the famed Earls of Kildare. Frequently, members of the sept would be on either side of a rebellion. Some would be outlawed; others pardoned; some ending up on the winning side.

<i>Making History</i> (play) play

Making History is a play written by Irish playwright Brian Friel in 1988, premiered at the Guildhall, Derry on 20 September 1988. It focuses on the real-life plight of Aodh Mór Ó Néill, Earl of Tyrone, who led an Irish and Spanish alliance against the English in an attempt to drive them out of Ireland. The play is set before and after the Battle of Kinsale. The battle does not directly feature in the play, although it is central to the plot.

Events from the year 1595 in Ireland.

Sir Henry Bagenal PC was marshal of the Royal Irish Army during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Events from the year 1598 in Ireland.

Sir Nicholas Bagenal or Bagenall or Bagnall was an English-born soldier and politician who became Marshal of the Army in Ireland during the Tudor era.

Siege of Enniskillen (1594)

The Siege of Enniskillen took place at Enniskillen in Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1594 and 1595, during the Nine Years' War. In February 1594, the English had captured Enniskillen Castle from the Irish after a waterborne assault and massacred the defenders after they surrendered. From May 1594, an Irish army under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O'Neill besieged the English garrison in the castle, and in August they defeated an English relief force. A second relief force was allowed to resupply the garrison, but the castle remained cut off. Eventually, in May 1595, the English garrison surrendered to the Irish and were then executed.

Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits

The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits took place in Fermanagh, Ireland on 7 August 1594, during the Nine Years' War. A column of almost 650 English troops led by Sir Henry Duke was ambushed and defeated by a Gaelic Irish force under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O'Neill at the Arney River. The English column had been sent to relieve and resupply Enniskillen Castle, which had been under siege by the Irish since May. The English suffered at least 56 killed and 69 wounded, and were forced to make a hasty retreat.

Sir Richard Percy was an English soldier who served in Ireland during the 1590s.

The Battle of Deputy's Pass was fought in County Wicklow, Leinster, in Ireland, on 29 May 1599, during the Nine Years War (Ireland). It was fought between the Irish forces of Felim McFiach O'Byrne who were part of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone's Confederation of Irish Lords, and Sir Henry Harrington, the English seneschal in County Wicklow.

On 16 February 1595, a Gaelic Irish force assaulted and captured the English-held Blackwater Fort at Blackwatertown in County Armagh. The Irish were led by Art MacBaron O'Neill, brother of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and marked Tyrone's break with the English Crown as he openly waged war against the English forces in Ireland.

The Battle of Belleek, also known as the Battle of the Erne Fords, was fought on the River Erne near Belleek in Fermanagh, Ireland, on 10 October 1593. It was part of the buildup to the Nine Years' War. The battle was fought between a Gaelic Irish army under Hugh Maguire, lord of Fermanagh—who had begun a revolt against the English—and an English Crown expeditionary force under Sir Henry Bagenal, supported by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Maguire's force was defeated, but the bulk of his army was unscathed. Hugh O'Neill would later join Maguire in war against the English.


  1. The number 3,500 comes from Captain Charles Montague's Report of the Accident at Armagh, a report dated 16 August 1598. For other contemporaneous reports giving numbers in the range 3,000 to 4,000 see "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 December 2008. Retrieved 18 November 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. Hibernian Magazine, Volume 2, 1861 - The O'Reillys at Home and Abroad
  3. O'Neill, The Nine Years War, 1593-1603, Chapter 7.
  4. O'Neill, The Nine Years War, p.75
  5. CSPI 1598-9, p. 237
  6. O'Neill, Nine Years War, pp 75-6
  7. O'Neill, Nine Years War, p. 76
  8. Hayes-McCoy, Irish Battles, pp 124-5
  9. O'Neill, The Nine Years War, 1593-1603, p. 77.
  10. For many contemporaneous sources about the numbers killed, some of them inconsistent, see "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 December 2008. Retrieved 18 November 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), chapter VI.
  11. O'Neill, 'Like sheep to the shambles', Irish Sword, no. 126, p. 376
  12. The 200 to 300 figure is the estimate of Lieutenant William Taaffe, reported on 16 Aug 1598. See "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 December 2008. Retrieved 18 November 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), page 351.